Smorgasbord Saturday (New Year's Edition)

The Cost of Executing Monsters

This week the Idaho Department of Correction released the amount the state's execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades cost the state of Idaho. Not surprisingly for those who are familiar with the cost of carrying out the death penalty, the cost was great. The exact cost IDOC released to the press was $53,411, not including the construction of the new execution chamber (F Block, as it is named).

In an interestingly timed release, the IDOC stated the following:
BOISE, December 30, 2011 – The recent execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades, IDOC #26864, cost the Idaho Department of Correction $53,411.

Of the total, $25,583 went to employee overtime and $27,828 went to operating costs [...]

[...] Operating expenses include medical supplies, equipment rentals and meals. The total cost figure does not include salary and benefits paid to IDOC staff who would have been working regardless of whether or not there had been an execution. Only overtime costs that were accrued as a result of the event were included in the final tally.

The press release went on to compare the cost of the state of Idaho's execution of Rhoades with that of the state of Oregon as they prepared for the execution of an inmate who was ultimately granted a reprieve when the governor of that state placed a moratorium on executions. The two states were separated by merely a few thousand dollars. The insertion of this information in the press release may only be a way for the IDOC to explain to the general public that the cost is comparable to other states and other executions, but it seemed inappropriate to be announcing that we can kill a man in the name of our people for cheaper than another state can.

When the new execution chamber was revealed to the people of the state of Idaho prior to Rhoades' execution, we were told that the necessity presented itself when the state began to realize there would be several more executions in the coming years. Maybe that is so, unfortunately to those of us who would rather our state not take lives in our name, but it doesn't erase the cost.

As long as we choose to execute the monsters among us, there will be a cost.

The Finder

It's official, The Finder has it's own page on the FOX website! And they've been running ads for the hour-long show that will premiere on January 12, 2012 at 9/8c.

Check out this video for a preview of the show:

If you're not a regular watcher of Bones, you may have missed FOX introducing The Finder (aka Walter Sherman). They're calling it a spin-off of Bones, but the only connection I see is that both shows are based on a series of books and have the same creator. There isn't much of a connection between the two, other than the story line devised to introduce one show in the time slot of the other. The Finder is based on two amazing books by Richard Greener. Called The Locator series, Greener wrote The Knowland Retribution and The Lacey Confession centered on the unique gifts of a military veteran who can find nearly anything or anyone--lost, missing or stolen. Not unusually, there are some differences between the books and the soon to premiere tv show (just as there are differences between the books by Kathy Reichs and the Bones show). Most notably, there are far less characters in the tv show than in the book, one major character specifically. Differences aside, it looks to be a very entertaining show.

Given my track record of liking shows of late that are cancelled after a season or even less, I hope that Bones fans and fans of the Greener books will tune in and give this show a chance.

Why Kim Jong-il is Not Really So Funny or So Strange

The Kim is dead, long live the Kim.

Kim Jong-il, The second Stalinist autocrat of the House of Kim in North Korea has passed away, and the third, Kim Jong-un, now takes his father's place. This has received a lot of coverage in the American media, with a slight sense of regret, being that the elder Kim had provided so much entertainment for Americans who loved to laugh at the odd, portly dictator with a love of Hollywood films and nuclear missiles. Having visited South Korea several times, I know the anguish Koreans feel about the Cold War division of their country into two opposing halves, and I have observed with sadness how each successive effort by the government and people of the South to reach out to the North has been rebuffed with the situation ending up where it began, with the North engaging in saber-rattling, missile-launching and other acts of symbolic or actual aggression to extort food and other aid out of South Korea and the USA in a kind of bizarre protection racket. How very weird, ridiculous and awful North Korea and its leaders are; how very far removed from us in wonderful, democratic America; or so we would like to believe.

I have been reflecting on Korea and reaching a different kind of conclusion, one that is not especially cheerful or reassuring. In a number of ways, I see the USA becoming more and more like North Korea.

Resemblance #1: Dedication to military power over all else. North Korea is as poor and economically dysfunctional as a country can be, but it still manages to have the fourth largest army in the world. Add to that the development of nuclear missiles, and you can see why military force is so important to North Korea. The rulers know that no one will ever dare to attack them, because any attack on North Korea would result in a devastating counter-attack on South Korea. The modern,high-tech magnificence of Seoul, the South Korean capital, could be attacked within hours by the North Korean army, and if the nuclear missiles ever become fully functional, the threat will be even more acute.

What does this have to do with the USA? Well, we are the number one military force in the world, we have more military bases around the world than anyone else, and in the last several decades we have engaged in more invasions and wars than anyone else. Whoo-hoo! Most Americans almost wet their pants with love of the military, and since 9/11, it has been considered very poor taste, unpatriotic, and maybe even a potential sign of terrorist sympathies to ever EVER question or criticize our wars, our occupations, our bases, the size of our armed forces, our huge expenditures on military matters, and so on and so forth. So we are rather North Korean-like in our devotion to the military and the almost sacrosanct position that military matters occupy in our national psyche. The North Koreans cheer when their missile launches threaten South Korea, and we love to "support the troops" when they invade other nations, no questions asked by the "patriotic" majority.

Resemblance #2: Just as the North Koreans show no remorse for the pain or suffering their aggressive acts cause to others, so do we have very hard time ever admitting, let alone apologizing, for death and destruction caused to other people by our military. For both the USA and North Korea, military action is a conscience-free zone of thought. There are of course Americans who oppose and critique our militarism and aggression, but I am referring to the majority, for whom being "strong on defense"(i.e., aggressive and unapologetic) is a key qualification of national political leadership. Note that,with the exception of Ron Paul, all the current Republican candidates for President continually heap scorn on President Obama for being a "weak" and "apologetic" President, despite his continuation of the Bush wars with expansions into Yemen, Libya and Pakistan, with ever-increasing use of drones to make the killing of "bad guys" even easier.

Resemblance #3: Like North Korea, we are dedicated to maintaining our huge military at any cost, even if our society is crumbling and resources are badly needed elsewhere. In the last two rounds of budgetary brinkmanship on Capitol Hill, the one thing that has given the Republicans pause in their zombie-like, headlong rush to cut back government programs and services despite the toll that such reckless and random amputations would take on non-wealthy Americans was the possibility that defense spending might also have to be cut. Suddenly the Republicans felt a sense of hesitation about their budget-cutting gospel! It is one thing to cut off unemployment benefits to people who can't find work, withhold food stamps from people on the edge of starving, destroy union contracts that provide a decent living to people who do not live off investments, or cut back funding to roads, bridges, schools or water systems that are disintegrating and collapsing. Things like that the Republicans can do without a moment's hesitation or any apparent remorse. But cut back the military by even one penny? Oh no, that is INCONCEIVABLE! That would be a CATASTROPHE! I suspect that if the current right-wing extremists of the Republican party manage to take over the Senate, the House and the Presidency, we will see a massive devastation of most social services and government programs and at the same time, a massive buildup of the military, all wreathed in a beautiful, red, white and blue patriotic afterglow. And then will come the wars, and more "support the troop" mass hypnotism as we send our young men and women to kill and be killed, all in order to "defend our freedom," to finally return maimed and mad to a country whose decline can only be disguised so long by massive military extravaganzas.

So, while we may enjoy snickering and sneering in remembrance of Kim Jong-il and the completely miserable state of the country that he presided over, I see him and the way he ruled North Korea as a frightening foretaste of what America may become if we continue in our blind worship of the military to the exclusion of all other needs and concerns.

But hope springs eternal. Maybe in 2012, Americans will decide that they have had enough of war and that is is time, at long last, to direct our energies to non-military matters, like taking care of each other and preserving our precious planet rather than seeking to blame and attack others. However, I am not at all confident that this runaway train can be stopped in time.

Counting Down to Christmas...

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - we'll see you again in 2012! Until then, for the sake of all those people who are spending way too much time wrapping presents this season, here's our official countdown clock until the big day....

Based upon code originally developed by EmailSanta.

Image credit: Fueled by Coffee (HT: Core77).

The Strangeness of the American Political Election

Am I the only one who finds the American elections for President, well.....weird? A few weeks ago or sometime then, I first tuned into the DNC convention in Denver. "DNC?" even that sounded odd to me. It reminded of me of some type of medical procedure. Okay, it's Democratic National Convention. The first bias I noted was in the political reporting and coverage from the different networks and cable affiliates. I had to check to see if the different "commentators" were actually at the same event.

If I wanted to get a spin more favorable from the republican side, I stayed on Fox. I tried to be fair and though I didn't connect with the democrat candidates, mostly because there's something sinister that hangs over Hillary and Bill, I would tune into CNN. My God, I wish I wasn't so shallow, but at least Osama is relatively appealing to look at and listen to. Old man McCann, it's hard to think how long he can hold up.

But anyhow, very little of the "reporting" felt like actual hard news, and the candidates? Such posturing. I couldn't get over how much they have to play to each other. Poor Obama, he was so left out on the porch to appease Hillary's supporters. It's obvious these people don't really like each other. By the time Hillary came on to "strongly" express her unwavering support for Obama's presidency, it felt more like a dry run for her own candidacy. Give her credit, she finally showed up, in a strong and confident address, but for her it was too late. This was all about creating "party unity" but even one of those covering the convention exhumed, Hillary, probably hope's Obama loses, so she can run in 2012. Now, that's somebody I'd want watching my back.

Iraqi Dinar - The Role of Oil, Politics, and Foreign Investment

There have been many developments in the Iraqi economy since the 2003. Efforts of the nation's government and foreign aid have focused on the following goal: increasing security and stability in Iraq via legitimate political representation, infrastructure building, and economic growth.

Possible domestic capital markets were created with the objective of cutting down their massive pre-war debt. The Paris club was generous enough to forgive 80% of Iraq's debt. Their policies towards growth and their near future economic stability attract investors worldwide.

Foreign bank licenses were also issued after many decades to banks such as HSBC, National Bank of Kuwait, Commercial Housing Bank, Iranian National Bank, Bahraini Arab Banking Institute and Standard Chartered bank. Interest rates were further liberalized in the aim to form a vibrant free market economy. The rejuvenated banking system was expected to have a positive effect on the value of Dinar. Besides, the Central Bank of Iraq became an independent agency, without influences from political parties of Iraq.

The Iraqi Dinar was being traded at 3.35 per US dollar before the sanction of United Nations and at 0.33 per US dollar before the Iraq war. The Iraqi Dinar was affected mostly by the major combat operations of the nation and had declined to an all time low value.

After the combat operations, however, the government succeeded in bringing up the currency value by 25% and currently the value of Dinar is 1400 against the USD, an enormous increase from 3500 against the USD during the US invasion. Even Germany and Kuwait underwent a similar devaluation postwar but both recovered.

The recovery of Iraqi Dinar is astonishing and the Iraqi government's efforts towards global market integration will still spur the value of the currency. Iraq after recovery is also expected to benefit from its abundant natural resources.

Political Cartoonists and Their Views

As a proper dictionary definition, a cartoonist is a person who specializes in drawing cartoons. A political cartoonist is a person who creates caricatures on a daily basis as a commentary on a political news event. Like every writer, the cartoonist is trying to make a point. They see themselves as a visual journalists rather than artists. They think analytically and share their opinions and views. Political cartoonists are different from ordinary cartoonists. They are "visual anarchists" of the satirized political scene.

In order to really understand a political cartoon one needs to have some background information on the political subject in question. Cartoonists use a series of techniques to get their message across. Caricature is the first and most important technique. It often exaggerates an individual's characteristics to make them more easily recognizable. Analogy is another much encountered technique. Cartoonists often use words and images to better explain a complex situation.

People should look critically at a political cartoon for a better interpretation of the actions. They have to first possess the necessary political background knowledge, understand the tackled subject, identify the techniques used by the cartoonist and try to interpret and understand the cartoon.

Should You Wait to Take Social Security?

Does it pay to delay taking Social Security benefits?

Let's say you're considering one of three options: taking early retirement at Age 62, retiring at the traditional Age 65, or really holding off on retiring until you've reached Age 70. Which choice might be better for you?

The question matters because people who wait longer before drawing Social Security benefits can draw larger benefits than those who don't wait.

To find the answer, we've tapped Social Security's estimate of the maximum possible Social Security benefits that would be paid for individuals choosing to begin receiving payments in the first month after they've reached each of these ages in January 2012.

We then projected the accumulated total amount of benefits each individual would receive all the way out to Age 100.

But since most Americans won't live quite that long, we also projected how much longer a typical American can expect to live once they've reached the age at which they begin receiving Social Security benefits.

We've presented our results in the following chart, where we've used a solid line to indicate the portion of benefits that would be accumulated based upon a typical American's likely remaining life expectancy, and a dashed line to cover the period from that age all the way out to Age 100.

Does It Pay to Delay Taking Social Security Benefits?

What we find is that based upon the typical life expectancy for most Americans, it does indeed pay to wait longer to draw Social Security benefits after becoming eligible.

For example, an individual who waits until the traditional Age 65 to begin receiving Social Security benefits will accumulate more money from the program than an individual who begins drawing benefits at Age 62 by the time both have reached Age 77. Since most Americans who reach either age can expect to live into their 80s, they would do better to wait than to take early retirement.

Likewise, by the time an individual reaches Age 82, they will have accumulated more benefits from Social Security by having waited to start receiving them at Age 70 than they will have by beginning to take them at Age 65.

Granny's Wild Card - Source:

There are two big wild cards in all this however. First is the major unknown of how long you will actually live - if you knew that, then you would know exactly which option might be better for your situation.

That's also complicated by whether or not you have a spouse. In that case, your Social Security benefits would continue to be paid to them in the form of survivor's benefits throughout the rest of their lives, which matters because they might live long beyond your years. That factor would argue in favor of waiting.

The second big wild card however is whether you have another source of income that can carry you from Age 62 through Age 70. Whether that's from regular retirement income that you set aside throughout your working years or from a job, both of which might be at the mercy of the economy, you might find it necessary to begin drawing benefits long before you would otherwise have chosen to do so in an ideal world.

How Much Does It Cost to Own an ETF?

If you're an investor looking to possibly put your money into an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), how much can you expect that will that cost you?

Shopping at the ETF Cafe - Source: Digerati Life

ETFs are a lot like mutual funds, in that they are made up of a number of individual stock or bond holdings and have operating expenses that will be charged against your account, but they're not exactly. Unlike mutual funds, which are only allowed to change hands at the end of a business day, you can actively trade an ETF - placing market orders to buy and sell at any time when the market is open, just like the shares of stock or bonds you might own.

Combined, those characteristics make an ETF something of a hybrid between mutual funds and regular stocks. Which means that figuring out how much it costs you to own an ETF is a little more involved than looking at the fund's Operating Expense Ratio.

If you're shopping for an ETF, and you're looking to minimize your costs as a way to help maximize your return on your investment, you'll also need to consider the funds Bid-Ask Spread, the value of any trading commission you might have to pay, as well as how long you plan to keep your money in the ETF and also how much money you'll keep in the ETF.

Fortunately, our newest tool is here to do the job for you! Based on math presented by Michael Iachini in the Winter 2011 edition of Charles Schwab's On Investing magazine (the link will work once the print edition is published online), our latest tool can help you find out how much it owning an ETF will really cost you!

Just enter the relevant data below, and we'll do the rest!

ETF and Investment Information
Input Data Values
ETF Operating Expense Ratio [%]
ETF Bid-Ask Spread [%]
Commission per Trade [$]
Time You Plan to Hold the ETF [years]
Amount You Plan to Invest in the ETF [$]

Annual Cost of Owning an ETF
Calculated Results Values
Your Annual Cost of Ownership [%]
Your Annual Cost of Ownership [$]

Using the default values in the tool, we find that the approximate annual ownership cost for investing $10,000 for half a year in an ETF with an Operating Expense Ratio of 0.10%, a Bid-Ask Spread of 0.15% and a per-trade commission of $8.95 is 0.76%, or $75.80.

Different ETFs and different brokers however will have very different numbers. Using our tool will help give you a good way to compare the relative costs of owning those ETFs when it matters most: before you choose to invest in them!

Image Credit: The Digerati Life

Building Your Groupon Discount Promotion

Cupcakes!  Source: in.govIf you run a business and are looking at running a marketing campaign offering discounts on your products or services through social media marketing sites like Groupon or Living Social, what kind of discounts can you really afford to offer?

That question comes up because of a recent story from the United Kingdom, where Woodley baker Rachel Brown was forced to make 102,000 cupcakes to satisfy a torrent of customers who took advantage of the discount she had offered via Groupon, losing $20,000 in the process. Mashable's Stan Schroeder reports:

Group discounts can be a nice thing for both the seller and the customers, but you have to know your limits. A UK baker learned that the hard way, when she was forced to bake 102,000 cupcakes, after offering a 75% cupcake discount on Groupon.

The discount obviously sounded too good to Grouponers, 8,500 of whom signed up to buy 12 cupcakes for £6.50 ($10), down from the standard £26 ($40) price. Rachel Brown, who operates the Need a Cake bakery in Woodley (near Reading, UK), had to hire extra workers and try to bake the cupcakes to satisfy the swarming customers.

"Without doubt, it was my worst ever business decision. We had thousands of orders pouring in that really we hadn’t expected to have. A much larger company would have difficulty coping," said Brown, who lost up to £12,500 ($20,000) on the deal.

There's a lot that went wrong for our cupcake-baking heroine, but thanks to the folks at TheDealMix, who developed the formulas, we can now present a tool using simplified math that can help any business owner set up a deal for discounts to avoid the pitfalls into which Rachel Brown's bakery fell.

Just answer the following questions as they apply for your business - our tool will do the rest to help ensure that your business can handle the demand from your deal while still running in the black!

Data About Your Business' Promotion
Input Data Values
How much does your average customer typically spend on the goods or services you'll be featuring in your promotion?
What is your cost for the goods and services you'll be promoting?
What amount, above your Cost of Goods Sold, will you add to the offer price for your promotion?
What percentage of your business' capacity do you use when not running a promotion?
How many monthly transactions do you have on average when not running a promotion?
How many months would you like to run your promotion?

Your Promotion
Calculated Results Values
Your Promotion (aka "The Deal")
Total Number of Deals to Offer

Our tool's results are designed to ensure that your business can afford to support the discount promotion you're thinking about running in two ways. First, by adding a positive amount to your Cost of Goods or Services Sold, you'll avoid the situation where you might discount your promoted item too greatly.

Second, by placing a limit on the number of deals that will be offered through your promotion, you'll largely avoid having to go to extraordinary means to satisfy customer demand should your promotion prove to be extremely popular.

And now, you shouldn't have to worry about whatever the equivalent of losing $20,000 to bake 102,000 cupcakes is for your business!

S&P 500: In the Zone!

Nobody can predict where stock prices will go next, can they? Especially given the volatility of stock prices, especially in today's market, where the market can swing by more than 3% in any given day, right?

It's just not possible, is it?

To really find out, we ran a two-year long experiment, from April 2009 through April 2011, to see if we could forecast the average value of stock prices for a month at the end of the previous month. Here were our final results:

S&P 500 Average Monthly Index Value, April 2009 to April 2011

As you can see, we offered a split final forecast option for April 2011. Here's what we believed would happen instead:

What we believe is likely is that stock prices will track upward from the average level of 1304 they recorded in March 2011 toward the 1393-1429 level our primary method would forecast as the noise currently in the market subsides.

And that's what happened. In April 2011, stock prices did indeed track upward, rising to an average level of 1331 for the month, with the S&P closing the month at 1363.61.

We took the next several months off from offering public forecasts of where the S&P 500 would head next, but by 26 September 2011, we couldn't resist any more, and posted the following chart, which presents a graphical prediction that happens to cover the period through the end of 2011:

S&P 500 Average Monthly Index Value vs Trailing Year Dividends per Share, December 1991 through 23 September 2011

And here's what the updated chart looks like, through the end of 16 December 2011:

S&P 500 Average Monthly Index Value vs Trailing Year Dividends per Share, December 1991 through 16 December 2011

What can we say? We're still in the zone! And that concludes, for real this time, our public experiment in forecasting the future for the S&P 500!

Innovation Beyond Technology

I have grown weary of people repeating the apparently widespread belief that "innovation" is the solution to all our problems. I don't deny that the difficult problems facing modern-day societies require new ideas and approaches. What bothers me is that when people talk about innovation, they seem to mainly be talking about TECHNOLOGICAL innovation. It's as if the Beatles song "All You Need is Love" has been re-engineered ("re-purposed," to use the latest innovative jargon sweeping the mass vocabulary) as "All You Need is Tech," available now on Ipad, pod and Kindle. Now, again, I am not opposed to technology. This blog is not written on a blackboard nor traced in the dirt with a stick nor conveyed by carrier pigeon. I am happy to embrace technology that is useful.

What concerns me is the assumption that technological innovation is all that matters in today's world, which overlooks the fact that technological change can be for good or for ill,and that technology often comes with all kinds of hidden costs that we only recognize belatedly. Technology used with wisdom and a sincere regard for human needs and human welfare can indeed be very beneficial, but technology used thoughtlessly without regard for its consequences or only for the purpose of amassing profits can be incredibly harmful and destructive, at the individual level, at the social level, and at the planetary level. Consider nuclear energy. Splitting the atom was an enormous scientific breakthrough, but we now live in fear of nuclear war and meltdown catastrophes such as happened in Fukushima last spring. How quickly today's innovation can turn into tomorrow's nightmare, based on how human beings choose to apply these new techniques and devices. If you are reading this blog, I assume that you are a person with some kind of spiritual awareness and also some degree of social concern. I like to imagine that you are not the kind of person who takes at face value the assertion that "all you need is tech."

There are other kinds of innovation just as important. There can be social and economic innovations, changes in how we live, work and distribute money and other resources, with incredible benefits for humanity. The creation of the labor union was one such innovation, a rearrangement of the work situation for the benefit of laborers. From the viewpoint of nineteenth century industrialists, labor unions were a huge pain in the ass that got in the way of the efficient use of up-to-date technology to maximize profits. The creation of public education and public libraries were other such innovations, based on an innovative vision of public good and welfare as opposed to private ownership and profit. Giving women the right to vote was another social innovation that helped move us toward a more gender-equal world in which women could claim equal citizenship alongside men. The Civil Rights movement in America helped to clear away the shameful racial prejudices and policies that all the technological innovation of the preceding century had done nothing to address.

Much has been made of the role played by new high-tech communication methods such as computers, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter in the revolutionary uprisings across the world in recent years, from Iran in 2009 to Egypt in spring of 2011 and Occupy Wall Street in recent months. Unfortunately, this line of thinking seems to take a serious wrong turn toward overly simplistic technological determinism in suggesting that such uprisings were only possible due to such "social media," and that without Facebook, the people who rose up in revolt would have been inert and helpless. Facebook, Twitter and other high-tech paraphernalia were no doubt useful tools of communication, but there had to first be bold and serious political ideas constructed in response to widespread grievances, or all the Twittering in the world might have just involved a sharing of celebrity gossip or sports scores. Let's not forget that "social media" do not create society, and that is first and foremost human beings, human thoughts and feelings, and the human capacity for desiring justice and social change that lead to uprisings and revolutions, not the latest technological fad.

Yes, we need innovation. We badly need to change the way our economy distributes wealth and resources, or we will continue to see technological innovation used to destroy employment for the many to increase the wealth of the few. We need to be careful about how information and media are owned and managed, or we will find that our supposedly infinite multiverse of digital information and electronic media will be in the hands of a small number of companies like Apple, Amazon and Google, and we will have no recourse when they decide to increase prices, censor unwelcome viewpoints, or limit access to types of information that are either politically inconvenient or unprofitable. I would feel much better having a strong public entity like the Library of Congress as the reservoir of information and media, because it would not then be subject to the whims of investors and profiteers. But then again, I believe in the public sphere in a time when most people seem to believe that all you need is private property and that kind, benevolent corporations are more trustworthy than the evil, intrusive government.

As a college professor, I feel that the world of higher education that did so much to nurture my generation and open doors of awareness and opportunity for millions of Americans is under increasing threat from high-tech entrepreneurs and Wall Street investors who see education as their next target for corporate takeover and privatization. Share in private companies offering educational services like charter schools are booming. It seems obvious to me that such companies would love to put all public education out of business, most of all we pesky teachers, so that education can be made into a commodity that will be bought, sold, traded, downsized to squeeze our maximum profit and delivered by low cost, increasingly less highly trained labor, providing the same benefit to American society that we have seen come from the wise, innovative management of American manufacturing and real estate over the last thirty years.

And then there is the environment. A few years ago there was widespread concern about global warming and environmental degradation and serious interest in new, less polluting, innovative energy technologies like solar power. However, the old guard struck back, and how! With a massive public relations campaign to discredit so-called "environmental extremists," old-school, carbon-based energy companies, including such good friends to the earth as EXXON, BP and Koch Industries, aided and abetted by the talk radio, television stations, Twitter feeds and other media outlets owned and operated by Murdoch, FOX and others of like mind and purpose, have been able to shift a substantial chunk of American public opinion back in favor of relying on oil, gas and coal, scorning the potential of still-developing alternative energy technologies, the environment be damned! One failed solar power company, Solyndra, to which the Obama administration had provided financial assistance, is now seen as proof positive that solar power is a silly waste of time, an inept leftist plot based on shoddy science and even worse economics. Meanwhile, large swathes of the United States are being subjected to the rapacious greed of the old guard energy companies, armed with the "innovative" new technology of "fracking" (hydrofracturing), which poses a horrible risk to water supplies for large regions of the country.

When it comes to the environment and energy, we need "innovation" that goes beyond technology. We need the innovation of courage of conviction along with the innovation of caring about the earth. We need the innovation of standing up and saying, sorry, profit is not everything. Profit is not worth degrading the earth. You cannot breath profit and you cannot drink quarterly dividends. Or maybe the super-wealthy few can, the financial super-elite; surely they can afford to develop and purchase new "innovative" technologies to provide them with clean air and water in their "innovative" gated communities, with "innovative" high-tech security systems to prevent lesser mortals from scaling the walls in search of oxygen, non-toxic food and healthy drinking water.

The greatest innovation is never technology. It is the capacity of human beings to stand up,join together and fight for a better world, a better world for all, not just the privileged few. It is wisdom to see a value in the world that goes beyond dollars and euros and corporate profits. Now, you might argue that this is not really "innovation," this is ancient tradition, this is spirituality or religion. Well, perhaps in our technology-bedazzled time, this is exactly the kind of "innovation" that we need, one that can help us to pause from our headlong rush forward and reflect on and learn from the past,and consider what is truly important, not only for today and our bank balance right now, but for tomorrow and for the generations to come. We need to look for values and practices that may not have made Steve Jobs or Bill Gates billionaires, but which have sustained the earth and the human spirit and which can still speak to us today, if we have ears to hear, even if that means disengaging from our electronic devices for a few moments now and then.

Smorgasbord Saturday

The Invisible Hand App

If you use Google's Chrome web browser, there's a relatively new app that can make shopping a lot more economical: InvisibleHand.

When you're reviewing a commercial web site when shopping for a product, such as airline tickets, rental cars, or even dog food, InvisibleHand will let you know if you can buy the product more cheaply at other sources and link to them. We snapped the screen shot below to show what the discreet prompt looks like when it finds a lower price, which appears at the top of the browser window:

Shopping for Dog Food at, InvisibleHand Finds Lower Price at

We've only been test driving it for a little while, but our initial impression is that the app is pretty cool! The app is free and versions are also available for the Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer web browsers from InvisibleHand's web site.

Elsewhere on the Web

Carolyn Nicander Mohr offers a positive review of the InvisibleHand app.

C|net's Rafe Needleman reconsiders his initial positive review for the app based upon privacy issues related to cross-site data leakage, where his search for a product on one site was unknowingly communicated to Amazon's site.

Revisiting the U.S. Housing Bubble

Once upon a time, we developed a better method for detecting housing bubbles. Today, we're going back to the data mines to do some refinement and to see where things stand today!

Our first chart shows the relationship between median new house prices in the United States and median household income for the years from 1967 through 2010.

Median New House Prices vs Median Household Income in the United States, 1967-2010

Here, we've revised our earlier look to better define the major trends evident in the data. Here, we see one major trend running from 1970 through 1986, then a second trend running from 1987 through 1999. After 1999, we see the housing bubble beginning its inflation phase as the relationship between median new house prices and median household income became decoupled, running through 2007. Since then, the U.S. housing bubble has been in its deflation phase, which appears to still be ongoing, as the relationship between the median prices of new houses and median household income remains decoupled.

One important thing to note is the shift in the trend that occurred after 1986. We believe this shift was triggered by the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which eliminated a number of debt-related tax deductions, but which left the long-standing mortgage interest deduction in place, even increasing the amount of the deduction.

The changes brought about by the Tax Reform Act of 1986 had two main effects. First, it incentivized home ownership by enhancing the tax benefits associated with owning property and having a mortgage. Second, in eliminating the favorable treatment of other debt interest, it made the home mortgage the primary channel by which people would choose to accumulate debt thanks to the interest on that debt being tax advantaged.

These changes however are not the cause of the U.S. housing bubble, as there is no correlation between the shift in trend and the beginning of the bubble in 2000. More interestingly though, we see that both trends would project nearly the same median new home price given the current level of the U.S. median household income.

Looking at the more recent trend that was defined in the period from 1987 through 1999, we can see that the relative affordability of a median new home in 2010 is still well elevated above where it would have been during that period. The following chart shows the percentage deviation between the 1987-1999 trend and actual median new home prices from 1987 through 2010, which gives a sense of how overpriced the median new home has been since 1999 thanks to the U.S. housing bubble:

Percentage Difference Between Median New House Prices and 1987-1999 Trend, 1987 through 2010

Here, we see that the relative affordability of the median new home with respect to where it typically was from 1987 through 1999 peaked in 2005, with a percentage deviation of 25.7%. Since then, the median price of a new home has fallen, bottoming in 2009 at a level 11.9% over where the linear trend that ran from 1987 through 1999 would place it, before bouncing back up to be 14.4% higher than the level of the projected trend in 2010.

What's interesting to us is that it appears that we stumbled directly into something that looks very much like the Case-Shiller house price index!

Case Shiller Home Price Index, January 1987-September 2011

Here, looking at both the 10-city and 20-city composite indices, we find that our representation above closely follows the pattern traced out by the Case-Shiller 20-city composite data - at least with respect to the linear trend we created in the chart for the period from 1987 through 1999.

But unlike the Case-Shiller data, because our method correlates house prices with household income data, it will better communicate the relative affordability of homes in the U.S. over time!

Since the Case-Shiller data has been updated more recently than the Census data, it appears that house prices in the U.S. have resumed falling in 2011. And even though those falling prices are making homes more affordable today, they would have to fall by roughly another 12-14% before they would be in the same ballpark for affordability that they were in the years from 1987 through 1999.

Or as the projected trend works out to be from our first chart, the same level of affordability that they were for Americans in the years from 1970 through 1986 as well.

Data Sources

U.S. Census. Median and Average Sales Prices of New Homes Sold in United States. Accessed 13 December 2011.

U.S. Census. Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements. Table H-5. Race and Hispanic Origin of Householder--Households by Median and Mean Income: 1967 to 2010. [Excel spreadsheet]. Accessed 13 December 2011.

Standard and Poor. Case Shiller Seasonally Adjusted Home Price Index Levels, September 2011. [Excel spreadsheet]. Accessed 13 December 2011.

How Many Calories Are You Really Eating?

How many calories does your body need to maintain its current weight? Or rather, if we were to take your current weight level and assume that you're consuming enough Calories to maintain it, how many Calories is that per day?

Your Personal Data
Input Data Values
Age [years]
Weight [lb]
Height [in]

Your Daily Activity Level

Approximate Daily Calorie Requirements
Calculated Results Values
Basal "Resting" Metabolic Rate [Calories]
Estimated Total Calories Consumed per Day

Math is a wonderful thing and yes, we can use it to work out approximately how many Calories you're eating every day! Our tool below uses the math developed by M.D. Mifflin, S.T. St. Jeor, L.A. Hill, B.J. Scott, S.A. Daugherty and Y.O. Koh in their 1990 paper "A new predictive equation for resting energy expenditure in healthy individuals" to estimate your basal metabolic rate, or rather, the number of Calories your body would consume when it's "resting", which we then mashed with the old Harris-Benedict approximations for taking your daily level of physical activity into account.

All you need to do is to enter your age, gender, weight and your approximate level of daily physical activity into our tool below. Unless you're a true athlete, with lots of lean muscle mass that burns even more Calories, or perhaps have a thyroid condition that directly affects your metabolic rate, you can expect the results to be pretty close to the actual ballpark in which your body burns Calories to maintain your current weight!

Best of all, if you're getting set to do something about your weight or fitness level, you now have some idea of how many Calories you're really consuming every day!

And really, that might be the most surprising result you'll find out from our tool!

Snapshots of the Expected Future Dividends for the S&P 500

A quick story in two snapshots. First, the expected future trailing year dividends for the S&P 500 through the fourth quarter of 2012:

Expected Future Trailing Year Dividends per Share for the S&P 500, as of 13 December 2011

Second, the tax rates that apply to dividend income from 2003 through 2012, and the expected tax rates that will apply for 2013 onward, given current law in the U.S.:

U.S. Dividend Tax Rates, 2003-2012, with Current Law Rates Shown for 2013 Onward

What effect do you think those much higher tax rates will have upon stock prices beginning in 2013? Especially since the long-term capital gains tax rate will be so much less? Here's what history says, but remember, it ends badly, except perhaps for the insiders....

Speaking of which, here's what they're up to today!

U.S.-China Trade: Reaching an Inflection Point

In October 2011, China set a new record for its exports to the United States, with the value of its goods and services being imported into the U.S. reaching an all-time high of $37.807 billion.

Unfortunately, the year over year growth rate of China's exports to the U.S. indicates that the U.S. economy, while doing a bit better than the months of May through September 2011, is still near recessionary levels.

Annualized Growth Rates of U.S.-China Trade, January 1985 through October 2011

Worse, we find that the year over year growth rate of U.S. exports to China has also reached near-recessionary levels, even as the value of the goods and services exported by the U.S. to China is still on track to peak by December 2011.

What we suspect is that the respective growth rates of the trade between the two nations are reaching a near-simultaneous inflection point, where instead of growing, which we would expect if the economies of China and the U.S. were both healthy, they are instead set to go flat or to become negative, as both nations would appear to be now experiencing near recessionary conditions.

It would seem that not even the kind of massive Keynesian economic stimulus spending that China engaged in back in 2009 and 2010 is sustainable for more than a couple of years, as all bubbles end. It's only ever a question of when and how....

Scheduling the Next U.S. Recession

Thanks to the Fed's excursion into Zero Interest Rate Policy (aka "ZIRP"), we can't use our dedicated tool that reckons the odds of a recession up to a year in the future.

But we can do the next best thing and listen to what the stock market is trying to tell us:

S&P 500 Quarterly Dividends per Share, 2009-Q1 Through 2011-Q3, with Futures Through 2012-Q4, as of 8 December 2011

Here, we find that the private sector of the U.S. economy is set to slow down in a big way going into the second quarter of 2012, which we see as the decrease in that quarter's expected dividends per share.

Keep in mind the extremely slow growth of just once cent per share from the second to third quarters of 2011 directly coincided with what we've described as a microrecession in the United States, which we've since confirmed using international trade data.

But what does that mean for jobs? After all, as we've seen previously, the big job losses following the beginning of a recession often occur quite a bit after it has begun.

Fortunately, we have another tool we can use to predict how the U.S. unemployment rate will change, up to two years in the future! The relationship between inflation-adjusted motor gasoline prices and the unemployment rate in the U.S.!

U.S. Unemployment Rate and Real Motor Gasoline Prices (and Projections) Shifted Two Years Later, January 1978 through November 2011

Here, we've shifted the red curve indicating the level of real motor gasoline prices in the U.S. some two years into the future. Here, we see that the recently announced unemployment rate of 8.6% for the U.S. is right about exactly where the gas prices of two years ago would predict they would be.

(Technically, they had been higher than anticipated until the most recent employment situation report, but then, remember the U.S. went through that whole microrecession thing!)

Looking into the future, we see that the unemployment rate through 2012 is likely to fall into the range between 8.5% and 9.0%. But very early in 2013, it would seem set to skyrocket back up over the 10% mark, after beginning to rise sharply toward the end of 2012.

That won't be any microrecession. And now, you can't say you weren't warned about what now looks like is coming this way!

Elsewhere on the Web

Doug Short compares the track record of two leading economic indicators and notes that the two have diverged in recent months, with one signalling recession and the other chirping along merrily - only one can be right!...

7 Effective Ways to Read and Understand African Political News

Whether you are an African expatriate hoping to stay in touch with what is going on in your home country, a potential tourist hoping to do research on the best place to visit, a political student striving to understand the development in Africa, or simply well-wisher dedicated to unload of few bucks to chip in the aid for Africa, translating the information you read into valuable knowledge is an important task

Like any other continent, Africa offers a set of complex realities that can offer conflicting outcome for the party interested; moreover, accessing the information you need is not always evident between the information you look for, and the information you find.

Below is a short description of criteria to consider when reading or researching news on Africa. While the list is not exclusive, and can certainly be extended, I believe this initial guidepost may help. Feel free to add or consider additional helpful points.

1. Consider the source of the information

Africa is a very complex place, that combines many world and realities, the gap between the rich and the poor creates in many places two different societies whose world rarely collide. For that reason, news sources are often tailored to one group or the other.

Understanding the source of the information will help you assess the legitimacy of the information you have. For example, is it a local or foreign news source? Foreign sources often have greater access to political circles because the government is more concerned about the way it is portrayed to the outside world; however, foreign sources rarely give you the real pulse of the nation. If the source is local, consider the accreditation that is reflected by interviews or first hand accounts. In Africa, Official news is often given unofficially, while official news is a front. That means that those sources that have close access to the government are more likely to give credible news, compare to unaccredited sources to whom is given generic news. (More on it further down)

2. Try to capture the perspective of the information

In Africa, the freedom of the press is not a sacred duty, and as mentioned above, free and transparent news are not evident. As a result, news often reflects the perspective of the source. The information you will get is based on the perception of the source. In the West, Africa is widely primarily viewed as a continent ravaged by war and diseases, where impoverished people and government are struggling very hard to survive, and thus their lives and activities are geared toward Help and how the global community can help them. As a result, most African news coming from the West will treat topics such as aid, sanction, peace and war, and oil discovery. Human rights, rigged election and corruption are other subjects often treated; in other words, Western media tend to chronicle Africa's efforts to "join" or emulate them.

When it comes to local media and news sources, the dilemma is different. Elite and well positioned news sources depicts the political life of the country, meaning that their news are mostly geared toward accounts of big political activities, such as Presidential travels and visits, opposition complaints, foreign investment, dignitaries visits, Diaspora news and international events in which the government participate. In short, those news sources attempts to present information from the perception of Africa to the rest of the world.

Finally, local media perception is often directed at the local population, therefore offers information on issue that matters to locals; energy and gas issues, employment, government promises kept or not, education, political freedom, cultural and social safeguard, etc...

3. Acknowledge the Biases

In the U.S, it is often assumed that CNN is Pro-democrats, and Fox News is a Republican arm, regardless if true or not, that perception is very present in Africa as well; not in form of Republican or democrats of course, but they still play a short role.

From the day of colonization, Western Nations had strategic interests in Africa, and Political propaganda has insured that many Westerners view some African countries internal policies as beneficial or threatening to their way of life.

If your African news information is from a Western source, always consider the position of your country with the African country you are researching. Popular opinion is critical and very few Western media will say nice things about the Zimbabwe government for example. Western media will offer news based on the national interest of their home country. You will rarely read negative report about the Egyptian Government that has good relations with Washington, although it is not a beacon of Democracy, yet Zimbabwe, which has been a torn in their side, is demonized. This is not an attempt to justify the evil of some people, but it is worth considering that Western media will report information according to the way they wish a certain country to be viewed.

If you wish to avoid the biases of Western news outlet, you are better off searching for African news by African news outlets. There again, there is an often bias between Pro and anti government. Some news sources are government sponsored, while other are dedicated to discredit the government regardless of good deeds or not. In Africa the contrast is usually very strong, as you can read full articles of "official" news feed that praises the government unashamedly, while others are almost littered with insults. Very rarely will you find news source that are impartial, and it is usually very evident to distinguish the sources political leanings.

Given the polarity of African societies, and the actuality of International Relations, one must not look at news Biases with pure disgust, but as a component and vital actor of global politics; filling between diverse biases can actually help uncover valuable information. But in case it doesn't help, always consider independent news and...

4. Identify the agendas

If for some reasons you are unable to filter official and supposedly professional news sources, do make use of independent news sources such as NGO's and Think Tank. Because they are usually unaffiliated with any government, and their work is mainly based on empirical data and research, NGO and Think Tank do paint an educated and comprehensive picture of what is going on in Africa. Most of their works are expanded toward a wide range of subjects that reflects a non-partial view of government activities, social realities and international implications.

If you obtain your news via NGOs or Think Tanks, you are most likely to have access to strong data, depending on the Think Tank, and hard core evidence of what is going on in the country you research.

The only problem presented by NGOs and Think Tanks is that they do have an agenda. The nature of their strong work is usually motivated by the mission to influence or advice a government to act toward an issue they view as important. Because of that agenda, those organizations often accentuate an issue to the point where it overshadows others, making it look like an exaggeration.

For example if an NGO has for agenda to reduce arm trafficking in Africa, their information may offer solid leads on the pulse of a country, with credible evidence; however, their extensive research on the impact of arm trafficking may minimize other positive information, to the point of giving the impression that you can buy Ak47 at a candy store. This of course is not with the intent to deceive or dramatize, but with the objective of using the data to convince world powers to act on arms trafficking.

If you know how to extract your information from those sources, they are an excellent balance to local and international news.

5. Check the blogs

Africa sends millions of its bright Sons and Daughters abroad to study in higher education, and loses other millions professionals in search of a better living. While the damages of this brain drain are considerable, the attachment all those Africans retain for their homeland represents a glimpse of hope.

Since they cannot directly be involve in official affairs in their home countries because of the distance or political threats, many member of the African Diaspora voice their opinions in blogs or personal websites.

The advantage of reading those opinionated blogs is that it offers a personal touch and reaction to all the other news you may have read.

Many are very knowledgeable in what they are writing, and approach it in a very professional way. They are not constrained by editorial control, so are free to give their honest, educated opinion on what they read, heard or experienced in and out of Africa.

If they are not that knowledgeable on African affairs anymore, many still have families abroad who can give them first account to report on what is happening.

Because they are so many blogs related to Africa, you can not only compare information and news, but also engage the writers and have a better feel on how and where they get to say what they are saying.

For most people, this is a valuable source, because on top of general political views, they can offer a personal one, as well as giving an insight on how and where people live their everyday, not to mention, where the hotspots are.

The disadvantage of Blogs is that it is after all just personal opinions, and personal opinions can be motivated or inspired by perception, Bias, and /or agenda. It is not uncommon for exile politicians to mount an opposition from abroad, something blogs tend to make easier, so caution is advised for that reason.

6. Search for supportive news

Every news agency is in search of a scoop, and none wants to be left out of considerable information.

Whenever you stumble on interesting information for your research, after identifying the source, always make sure to search if that information is reprised by other news outlets.

When it comes to Africa, it is very common for news to be generalizing, but if you feel you came across useful information, always double check if you can locate it in other Western sources (if those where your primary sources), and then in local African sources. Check in Blogs and social sites if it is being discussed, or better create a new discussion.

The fact of the matter is that if you are looking for information on Africa, the complexity of its state does not favor taking any information at face value, but insuring that it is shared, discussed and not hostage to any perception and bias will help you have good grip on what is going on.

7. Use common sense

In Politics like in everything, things happen for a reason, from a coup d'Etat, to a social uprising, and political instability to international sanction.

Africa is not another planet we know nothing about, and it did not appear without a past or history.

In everything you read or learn about Africa, consider the context and remember history. Famine and poverty did not come suddenly; wars all have a spark plug, poor countries should not be able to buy weapons they do not manufacture.

The context and the historical reality that today links nearly all countries on Earth presents the fertile ground on how you will receive the news you receive, they way you receive it.

Knowledge is a light to which is drawn a bug called interest, and common sense should help you navigate the waves of misinformation toward the land of comprehension of the subject you research.

As mentioned, this is a list that can be extended and perfected, but for all who have at one point or another, read African news or wanted to understand what is going in Africa, I hope that little list will be helpful the next time it happens.

Over-reliance on popular media is like over relying in anything, it cripples one's ability, and dilutes the quality of the need sought.

Stay thirsty for knowledge; you might very well quench your thirst yourself.

Your Maximum and Target Heart Rate

How many times per minute should your heart beat while you're exercising?

Age and Gender Data
Input Data Values
Your Age
Your Gender

Your Maximum and Target Heart Rates
Calculated Results Beats per Minute
Your Maximum Heart Rate
Your Target Heart Rate Range

NASA's G-Trainer

It used to be really easy to calculate what your maximum and target heart rate for working out should be - you just took your age, subtracted it from 220 and that gave you your maximum heart rate. You would then try to keep your heart rate between 50% to 80% of that number to get the best cardiac workout that medical professionals could recommend.

But then, while that math works for men, it turns out that math doesn't work for women!

Fortunately, a new math formula for finding the maximum and target heart rates for women has been developed: all a woman needs to do is to subtract 88% of their age from 206 to find their maximum heart rate number, then keep their pulse rate between 50% and 80% of that result while exercising!

Since that really isn't the kind of math that people can do in their heads, our latest tool is designed to take your head out of the picture, so you can focus on that workout of yours, regardless of whether you're a man or a woman!

Just enter the indicated data into the tool, and we'll tell you just how fast you need to get your blood pumping while you're working out on that new-fangled treadmill....

So there you go - now give us 20!

Image Credit: NASA's G-Trainer. Why, it's our tax dollars at work!